Tomorrow, December 14, will be the first day of this winter's Christmas Bird Count. The count will run through January 5.
The Christmas Bird Count is the oldest of the citizen science projects that were devised to help people express their interest in and care for birds in ways that actually benefit the birds. The idea for the count came from ornithologist Frank Chapman who was an officer in the newly formed Audubon Society at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, there was a Christmas tradition known as the "side hunt" where Christmas revelers in groups would fan out into the countryside to see how many birds they could kill. The group that had the biggest pile of dead birds at the end of the day "won." In 1900, Chapman sought to substitute a new Christmas tradition, the Christmas Bird Census, for the appalling practice of the side hunt. Groups would count birds instead of shooting them.
Chapman and his dedicated birding friends held twenty-five bird counts on that first Christmas and they tallied around 90 species of birds. I don't think Chapman could have had any idea of how his new tradition would catch on and grow. Today, 111 years later, thousands of bird counts are conducted all over the continent during the three week period that it is held and the total number of species found will most likely top 700. At the end of it all, ornithologists (and all of us) will have a much better idea of where the birds are and what their numbers are here at the beginning of winter, even as the Great Backyard Bird Count in the middle of February gives us similar information about the birds in late winter.
In the Houston and Gulf Coast area, the Houston Audubon Society sponsors many local counts. There may even be one in your neighborhood and it's not too late to join the fun if you are interested. For example, in my area, the Spring Creek count is held on December 17 and the Cypress (Katy Prairie) count will be held on January 1. As it happens, I will be otherwise occupied on both days, but I'll be doing my own strictly unofficial counts.
On December 27, after all my holiday guests are gone, I'm doing a count in my neighborhood and on January 1, my family and I will be making our annual New Year's Day trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge to survey the birds there.
You can find a list of all the local official counts at the Houston Audubon Society website (link above), along with the contact information if you are interested in taking part.